the misguided venture: cinque terre


Perhaps Val had been right, intuitive even, to remain in Milan and decline the weekend invitation. It began with panic, backpacks bouncing in a sweaty sprint down Via Vitruvio to catch the train from Stazione Centrale. Naturally, we missed it – a telling omen, it would seem, in retrospect. But I was incorrigible in my plans to visit Cinque Terre before the last of the soft autumn weather gave way to something altogether unfitting for quaint Italian coastal towns.

An invigorating round of cappuccinos, a scenic train ride, another mad uphill dash for the last available hostel rooms, and the afternoon was a dream. It was bathed in the sort of molten sunlight that recast the world in edenic simplicity. All thoughts of the crazed morning vanished as we wandered through the vineyards overlooking Manarola, feeling acutely throughout the stroll that Midas himself was passing somewhere up ahead, just beyond the next dimple in the hillside. The sun-baked pastels of the rustic buildings, stacked unevenly against the incline, clung to each other with laundry lines suspended across narrow alleys, like strung clay beads. Perhaps Val had been wrong to stay home after all.

This judgment needed only dinner to be firmly secured. Gnocchi soaked in a fresh deluge of pesto, and a full serving of focaccia con nutella, the holy grail of baked desserts, brought the euphoric belief that heaven is a place called Riomaggiore. And, had the weekend ended with that realization, perhaps Val would have remained wrong.

Then Sunday happened. Gray and stormy gusts swept north from the ocean into our paradise, colliding with the chilling echoes of abandoned train tracks and whispered currents of a regional ‘sciopero.’ And so it was that nature ruled out travel by boat, and disgruntled operators on strike ruled out travel by train. The weight of our backpacks and the force of the damp winds propelled us down the slippery cobblestones of Manarola as we followed the aroma of coffee towards candid efforts at optimism and a dubious return to urbanity. And to Val, comfortably situated in her dry Milanese apartment.

It was no easy feat, wandering the five towns of Cinque Terre to obtain a taxi while fighting off hordes of stranded tourists in a rainstorm. Several hours and an exorbitant sum of euros later, we somehow – miraculously – arrived at a train station several towns away where national trains were still running.

As we pulled out of the station, I slumped against the window in exhaustion and I allowed myself to bask in a moment of relief. Or was it…accomplishment? Many would count the weekend a decided failure, a tizzy of cancelled train schedules, an endless search for a means of escape. But in my own estimation, we had successfully accomplished more than the average tourist. We had not simply visited Cinque Terre; we had developed a relationship with each of the five towns. Every desolate beach shrouded in fog, every careening taxi that sped past our outreached arms, every information center where no one spoke English – they were small pieces of the spirit of this place. The parts that aren’t for sale, that don’t appear on postcards or in guidebooks.  Embarking on this misguided venture was no mistake. The only mistake would have been not to come at all.